Sample Literary Analysis on the Character "Sula" by Toni Morrison
A book report summarizes and analyzes a book or novel. This sample book report provides a detailed summary of Toni Morrison’s novel Sula and provides a character analysis of the protagonist Sula. Read on to see how to structure and write a book report.
Students are told to make a number of book reports or book reviews in school. From William Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet to the 21st century Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, a student has probably gone through them all. An American classic read, Sula, is more fitted for older students due to some adult themes that may not be suitable for younger children. This paper aims to summarize and critically analyze Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula. The book report focuses on Sula’s character and her failed attempt to form an identity outside the one assigned to her by her community. The literary analysis focuses on how Sula’s label as an outsider and evil in her community drove her to lead a life of independence but this independence remains superficial because she does not have the agency to form an identity beyond the label of “bad girl.” Sula’s life, thus, is a paradox that revolves around wanting to be considered good while doing things that are considered bad.
Sula – The First Half of the Story
Sula’s story revolves around the life of the protagonist, Sula, who shares her name with the title of the book. As she ages, she becomes a strong, determined, and independent woman who refuses to be a conformist. The book is divided into two parts: Sula Peace’s coming-of-age experience and Sula Peace as a grown woman.
Sula lives in a mostly black community located somewhere in Ohio known as the Bottom. Below it is the wealthy white community of Medallion. The Bottom is situated in the hills and was a gift from a master to his former slave. The master made the recipient believe that it was a bountiful land knowing that it was a poor stretch of hilly land by claiming that it was closer to heaven.
Little did the master know that his scheme was the beginning of the growth of one vibrant community of Black people and the occasional transient. In the novel, the community of the Medallion took a liking to the land of the Bottom and was planning to destroy the place so that they would be able to build a golf course on it.
Sula Peace found a best friend in a girl her age named Nel Wright. They both grew up in a fatherless homes. The stark difference in their upbringing is that Nel Wright grew up in a deeply conventional family whereas Sula Peace’s family was considered eccentric and loose. The book describes Sula's house as a "throbbing disorder constantly awry with things, people, voices and the slamming of doors . . ." (Morisson 52), which suggests a family accustomed to spontaneous disruptions and fleeting alliances.
Sula Peace lives with both her grandmother and mother. There are also three informally adopted boys living with them in their homes. As the Peace ladies were not really that close, it opened the doors for them to live with considerable freedom in fashioning an independent self. An unrestricted household such as the Peace Family is the reason adult Sula grew as an impetuous and independent freethinker.
As Sula was accustomed to constant changes at home that is brought upon by the frequent transients, she is very perturbed by a traumatic incident that changed her and Nel’s friendship forever. Sula, the unintentional grim reaper, playfully swings Chicken Little around, holding his hands. Unfortunately, she loses her grip and sends him flying into the nearby river where he drowned. That abruptness of his end strikes Sula.
Nel and Sula never told anybody about what happened even if they never did intend to harm that poor neighborhood boy. After that horrible accident, the two girls began to grow apart. Following that, Sula experiences yet another life-changing disruption. She overheard her mother, Hannah, talking about her with her friends saying that she loves Sula but she did not like her (Morrison 57). Hannah's words act as a determining factor for Sula's deviance.
One day, Sula’s mother’s dress catches fire in an accident. Sula simply watches as her mother burns. She feels no fear, no hope, and does not rush to save Hannah (Morrison 78). Sula simply watched her mother as she dies of burns.
Sula – The Second Half of the Story
This signals the end of the first half of the novel. After this, Sula and Nel walk their predetermined paths. Nel is a conventional housewife and mother and Sula is a divergent and fiercely independent woman who does not like anything conventional. Sula leaves the Bottom and spent ten years having interracial relationships. By the time Sula returns to the Bottom, she was regarded by the community as the very personification of evil because she blatantly disregards the conventional way of life.
Sula has now become a reckless woman, someone who lets her feelings dictate her decisions without thinking of the consequences. She then had an affair with Nel’s husband. An affair that is based on ambivalence and immediacy centered on herself. Nel, enraged, cut off all ties with her former best friend Sula.
Sula's disregard and separation from the community do not go unwarranted. Sula has breached what the locals deem acceptable and necessary: she puts her grandmother in a nursing home and she commits the "unpardonable sin" by sleeping with white men (Morrison 112). Once the townspeople learn of those deeds, they start to scrutinize her with increased fervor and associate every bad event with her. But despite their mounting criticism, Sula remains undaunted because she expects as much from the community.
Some years after Sula died, Nel went to the nursing home to visit Sula’s grandmother, Eve. Their conversation led to Eve realizing that she had been unfair to Sula and that she was desperate to clean herself of the past which is why she quickly became the conventional person she was avoiding to be.
Analysis of Sula
Throughout Morrison’s novel, the concept of community and individuality is prevalent. Sula’s whole being is marked with individuality. She is born with a birthmark that serves as a distinguishing character for her. The presence of a birthmark on her signifies that she is bound to have a life that is distinguished from others around her—that she is certainly not like everyone else around her. The blatant disapproval and discrimination of the community at Bottom, and her mother and grandmother, push Sula to live life independently, according to her own rules. Paradoxically, this prevents Sula from forming her own identity. Although she does as she pleases, she does not have the agency to define herself and her actions because everything she does is automatically branded by the community as evil.
Sula’s birthmark is merely a symbol of her individuality. Throughout her life, she is singled out by her society. Sula grows up in a vibrant and close-knit Black community. Although Sula grows up in this community, the community looks down upon Sula’s family and, eventually, Sula herself. Her family is described as loose and disordered. Sula grew up without a father and her mother and grandmother functioned separately, allowing Sula to grow independently (Jimenez Rodriguez 11). A contrast to this is Sula’s childhood best friend, Nel, who grew up in a conventional family with both parents closely raising their children. Nel’s upbringing fit the tradition approved by the community of Bottom while Sula’s was not. From a young age, Sula has always been an outcast in the community she lived in and she is aware of this. Thus, from a young age, her sense of self is formed in contrast to society, encouraging her to be independent and rebellious.
While independence is an important element in the formation of identity, Sula’s independence does not come with freedom. Her identity is influenced by the negative perceptions of the community. She accepts her identity as an outcast in her community and did not develop an identity outside of this label (Jimenez Rodriguez 13). This identity is further reinforced when she finds out that her mother also does not like her. Hearing this remark solidified Sula’s feelings of solitude: “…ever since her one major feeling of responsibility had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed place in the middle" (Morrison 118). Sula fails to identify with the community and family she grows up in, and so continues to function as such—an outsider.
Sula, thus, leaves the Bottom to live her life according to her own rules. She left Bottom for ten years and when she returned, it is evident that she does not care for the community, nor her grandmother whom she moves to a nursing home. This act is met with disapproval in the community and for which she is labeled a “roach.” Much like when the community blamed Sula for watching her mother burn as a teen, the community refuses to see the reasons why Sula put Eva in the home—because Sula was afraid of her. The community, even her friend Nel, refuses to see Sula as a human being with fears and complications. Nevertheless, Sula is unfazed by the community’s disapproval because she grew up without it and knew that she would never get it.
On the surface, it seems like Sula is disregarding social rules to do whatever she wants. However, this is far from the truth. In fact, Sula’s actions are defined by society’s disapproval of her. Bottom views her as the evil in their community, and Sula embraces and confirms this label by doing rebellious and transgressive things. For instance, she doesn’t hide that she sleeps with white men even though the community disapproves of this due to the decades of racism they experienced as collectively and individually. She also does not conform to their rules of modesty like wearing underwear. But her most unforgivable transgression is having an affair with Nel’s husband. This confirms the community’s fear that Sula is a threat to their society while it affirms to Sula that she is really disliked by her community.
Sula’s life is preoccupied by the fulfillment of a role set to her by society. As a result, she failed to form her own, and instead fixated on being the bad woman. This is confirmed by her suggestion to Nel that maybe Sula was the “good girl” and Nel was the “bad girl.” Sula is aware that society only sees her as a “bad girl” but although she is aware that she—as is any human—is complex, she still tries to reduce her life in wanting or hoping that she is a “good girl.” In the end, Sula continues to define herself based on this dichotomy. Sula’s story demonstrates the undeniable influence of society to individuals. One cannot form an identity alone, for it is inevitably influenced by society.
Morrison depicts the complexity of the life of a Black woman who strives to form her own identity in a world that refuses to acknowledge and embrace the subjectivity of a Black woman. As a black woman, Sula grew up in a culture that values a tight community as a response to a history of slavery and racism. However, within this culture is also patriarchy that pushed Sula and her grandmother and mother to the peripheries for not following societal rules. Sula’s life as an outsider, having been made aware of it from a young age, became the center of her identity. As an adult, she continued to fulfill the role assigned by the community to her—the bad girl—all while wanting to be labeled as a good girl. This created a paradox in Sula and a space that she tried to fill up with sex. All the way to her death bed, she struggles to hold on and to let go at the same time, and she cannot find a place that allows her this paradoxical fulfillment.
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Jimenez Rodriguez, Adriana. “Toni Morrison’s Sula: Formation of the Self in Terms of Love-Death Relationships with Others and with Oneself.” Revisita de Lenguas Modernas, no. 11, 2009, pp.9-17.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Knopf, 1973.